How do you find a way to guarantee school choice for parents and pupils without creating a divided system, where privileged families prosper and the poor and disadvantaged lose out?
Let us start with four facts:
Fact 1. Some schools are more popular than others. Many parents want their children to go to popular schools that have more applicants than there are places available.
Fact 2. When this happens the school or local education authority has to decide which children can have a place. Parents can express a preference for these schools but there is not absolute choice. It is the school or LEA that chooses the children as much as the parent chooses the school. Parents can only choose schools where there are schools with spare places.
Fact 3. Where a school can choose children it will, left to its own devices, inexorably drift towards choosing posh children. The headteacher and governors may be committed to their community and have very high standards and principles. But teachers would rather deal with nice children who have done their home-work and parents would prefer to send their children to schools that cater for children with similar backgrounds.
Fact 4. Parents do not want to have to ship their children to schools that are not close to their homes and only do so when they are not satisfied with their local school. Most local authorities try to accommodate this in their admission arrangements. The result is high-performing schools in posh areas and less well-performing schools in deprived areas.
It is evident that these facts produce dilemmas for schools and LEAs. How do they increase parental preference without allowing some schools to carry surplus places? How do they help schools to maintain a balanced intake when there are so many forces separating the privileged from the deprived?
There are four groups of people who think they know how to do it: The free-marketeers. These people believe that if the market was able to respond completely to parents' choices, the problem would resolve itself.
Popular schools would expand and unpopular schools would contract until the supply of places would balance demand. We should give up all regulation and planning. Schools should advertise their wares and parents (customers) would purchase them.
The idealists. These people think that the answer lies in making sure that all schools are popular. If schools that are now unpopular can be better managed, have better buildings and more teacher support they will produce better results. They will become popular again. Parents will not compete for places in some schools because they will all be satisfied with their local school.
The bureaucrats. These people believe that we could solve the problem by proper planning. They think they can find out what people want, put schools where parents want them then order them to send their children there.
The privatisers. These people think the private sector can do everything cheaper and better. They believe that we need a very large computer in Runcorn and a call centre in India.
Of course, none of these groups has the answer. A free market has existed in parts of the South-east. Schools started competing with each other with a vengeance. They produced their own application forms, leap-frogged each other in application dates and produced admission criteria that penalised any parent who had the temerity to apply for anywhere else. Equally, the notion that we can improve all schools so that all are equally attractive, though a proper aspiration for all of us, is pie in the sky for the present. Going back to the days when parents did what they were told to do by bureaucrats does not sound feasible. And putting something as sensitive and personal as school placement in the hands of computers and call centres seems a recipe for disaster.
So what is the answer? The key constituent of any successful admissions system is trust. We have to recognise the inevitability of some schools becoming popular and oversubscribed. But parents can be persuaded to accept an unwelcome decision if they believe the arrangements are administered by an efficient local officer who clearly knows the schools and has some connection with school improvement teams to work on the performance and image of unpopular schools. School governors and councillors should be involved so they can defend the system when it is challenged. And, of course, ministers have to be able to take decisions to implement national policies.
We are still some distance away from the perfect system. There are still too many admission authorities that are not properly administering the processes as they are required by regulations. There are still too many admission criteria that are obscure or discriminatory and still too many areas where the system is being used to achieve inappropriate ends. But there is no single problem to be resolved by a major change in legislation or systems. And we must remember that 90 per cent of parents are satisfied with the arrangements as they are. The need now is for steady, low-key developments involving many people in local authorities and schools. We should not be seduced by the policy wonks who believe there is a magic solution to an imaginary problem.